Pictured: Gustav (Gustav Lindh) and Anne (Trine Dyrholm) in a scene from the Danish film, 'Queen of Hearts', co-written and directed by May el-Toukhy. Still courtesy of Danish Film Institute/Nordisk Film Production
Again: what sort of woman sleeps with both a man and his teenage son in the same house? In her second feature, Queen of Hearts (Dronningen) co-written by Maren Louise Kaehne, Egyptian-Danish writer-director May el-Toukhy addresses the same question as Eliza Petkova’s film, A Fish Swimming Upside Down with a near identical outcome.
Here though the woman in question, Anne (Trine Dyrholm in a fearsomely committed central performance) is a successful lawyer who specialises in defending children. By her own admission, Anne doesn’t have any friends. Her father has died. She doesn’t visit her mother. She is however close to her sister, Lina (Stine Gyldenkerne) who varnishes Anne’s nails and is separated from the father of her young mixed-race son, Lucas (Noel Bouhon Kiertzner).
Anne and her doctor husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper) have twin daughters, Frida and Fanny (twin sisters Liv and Silja Esmår Dannemann). Their family expands when Peter brings his teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh) to live with them. Gustav is troubled. His Swedish mother, Rebecca, whom we never meet, has run out of patience with him. However, Frida and Fanny are super-excited. Flanking him wearing the same striped top, they present him with a heart-shaped wooden key ring that they have made themselves (one of the film’s heart motifs). Gustav isn’t grateful, discarding it at the earliest opportunity. There is a break in at the house. Jewellery is missing. Anne makes a discovery (concerning the key ring) that leads her to conclude that Gustav staged the break in. She gives him the chance to start over.
There is an alternative: send Gustav to boarding school. Peter is keen to avoid this. He had not seen his son grow up and does not really know him. After their conversation, Anne notices a change in Gustav. He brings back a girl, Amanda (Carla Philip Røder). After a brief introduction, Gustav takes her to his room. As Anne sits downstairs, trying to work, she hears the young pair getting intimate. She pours herself another glass of wine and is distracted by the moaning. Later in her room, she poses in her blue negligee and considers her own attractiveness. Middle aged, yes, but with a flat stomach – she pulls up her negligee to contemplate her belly button. Anne is equally changed.
Anne’s marriage is affected by her work. In an early scene, Peter complains that there is a stranger in the bathroom. It is one of Anne’s clients, a young girl subjected to a sexual attack. Anne is preparing her for her court appearance. ‘You won’t be able to do that when Gustav comes,’ he moans, adding, ‘Just once, I’d like you to say, yes, Peter. I understand, Peter.’ ‘Yes, Peter. I understand, Peter,’ Anne replies, mimicking him. Peter sighs.
Anne explains to the girl that the prosecution will allege that she is promiscuous. ‘How many men have you slept with? Five? Ten?’ The girl admits to sleeping with seven men. ‘Is that too many?’ she asks. ‘You’ll do fine in court,’ Anne assures her. At court, the girl has last minute nerves about testifying. ‘He may do this to other girls. You don’t want to be the one who could have stopped him but didn’t,’ Anne tells her. Nevertheless, the defendant is acquitted. Walking to her car, she sees him laughing and confronts him. In her office the next day, she is told that he has filed a complaint. Her (male) partner isn’t worried about the fine, more her reputation. ‘You knew what I was like when we started this firm,’ Anne explains, standing her ground. She is not one for admitting her mistakes.
Anne wears her heart on her sleeve, so to speak, and reads to her young twin daughters, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, which features the eponymous Queen of Hearts. She over-compensates. During a dinner party out on the veranda, Anne changes the music. As the song ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell plays, she dances around the table until she reaches Peter and tries to pull him to his feet. He smiles at her and holds her arm but resists joining in the dance. Sulking, Anne sits with her glass of wine under the veranda. Gustav joins her. He isn’t interested in meeting the people upstairs. Instead he invites Anne to join him in a trip to buy cigarettes. ‘It will be fun,’ he explains.
The pair end up in a bar. Anne asks about Amanda. Does Gustav like her? Gustav is non-committal and smiles instead. He thanks Anne for the drink. When Anne returns Peter is clearing glasses on the veranda. He is furious with her for walking out on their guests. Anne doesn’t make a point of it, but they were his guests. Peter complains that she is rude and disrespectful and asks where she had gone. Anne doesn’t tell him about her drink with Gustav. He stops clearing the table and leaves Anne to do it instead.
It is after this argument, during one of Gustav’s trips away, that Anne transgresses. She enters Gustav’s room while he is in bed and offers herself to him. Gustav accepts.
From then on, there are frequent trysts – the film is explicit. Gustav starts acting as a big brother, reading to the twins – they enjoy this immensely. Anne buys Gustav a computer, much to the annoyance of Peter, who wanted to share the purchase – to do something for his son. ‘Do you want to be present when I feed Gustav and wash his clothes?’ Anne asks. Peter concedes the point.
However, at the twins’ fifth birthday party, Gustav goes too far. He kisses Anne intimately. ‘Not here,’ he says. However, it is too late: Lina has seen them. She leaves soon afterwards, shocked and angry. As she says later, ‘he’s a child’. Anne is unable to explain herself. Then Lina rings Peter. Anne has no idea what was said. Peter decides to take Gustav with him to the cabin, where the family frequently spend their vacation. The twins want to come. ‘What will they do?’ one of them asks. ‘Chopping wood and fishing,’ explains Anne. There is a single take, filmed from the back window of the car of Peter driving Gustav away, Anne and the girls receding into the distance.
Before this unscheduled trip, Gustav records a conversation with Anne in which he asks her when she first had sex. Anne doesn’t want to talk about it. ‘Sometimes what happens and what should never happen are the same thing,’ she explains. It is the closest she comes to admitting that she had a traumatic youth, one which in turn motivates her choice of career.
Pictured: Peter (Magnus Krepper) and Anne (Trine Dyrholm) in a scene from the Danish film, 'Queen of Hearts' (Dronningen) co-written and directed by May el-Toukhy. Still courtesy of Danish Film Institute / Nordisk Film Production. Credit: Rolf Konow
The twins enjoy horse riding. Anne takes them to a lesson. On the way, she stops to visit Lina. The twins rush in to play with Lucas. Lina doesn’t invite Anne in. ‘Did you phone Peter?’ Anne asks. ‘Yes,’ Lina replies but doesn’t elaborate. The twins rush back and ask to stay. They are told that they can say goodbye to Lucas, but that’s it.
Driving to pick the girls up from horse riding, Anne’s phone rings. She moves to pick it up and then drives first into a verge, then turning the car down a slope. When she and the girls arrive home, they are surprised by the return of their father. ‘We came back by taxi,’ the twins explain, excitedly hugging Peter. ‘Mummy’s car broke.’ Anna explains there was an accident. Peter brought Gustav back from the cabin earlier. He has explained everything.
Anne insists Gustav is lying. There is a family conference in which Peter and Anne ask Gustav why. ‘I’m not lying,’ he insists.
One of Anne’s clients pays her a visit to thank her – Anne earlier referred her to social services after the girl confided that she had been struck by a family member. Anne had been right to report it, just as she had been so wrong in her treatment of Gustav.
Unexpectedly, Gustav appears at her office. Anne closes the curtains before speaking to him. He wants her to admit they had an affair. Anne will not do so. ‘Then I’ll make a complaint,’ Gustav explains. ‘You’re not credible,’ Anne explains. In other words, the truth won’t be recognised from a boy who had trouble with the police in Sweden and broke into Anne’s house – Anne told Peter this to help get him to believe her. Gustav leaves the office and heads for boarding school.
At Christmas, Anne brings home a dog for the twins. It is implied that the dog is a replacement for Gustav. A birthday dinner is thrown for Anne. Lina attends. She tells Anne that she is enjoying the party. However, their relationship remains strained.
Right at the beginning of the film, we see the forest. The camera rotates and moves downward to reveal Anne walking the dog. She throws a stick. The dog chases it. She walks back to the house. She sees Peter. ‘Why haven’t you left?’ she asks. ‘Stockholm Police called. They need to speak with me,’ he explains. ‘Do you want me to come with you?’ Anne asks. ‘No,’ Peter replies. ‘Will you call me when you get there?’ ‘Yes,’ Peter says and leaves. Anne walks to the window and stares out at the woods, ashen-faced, guilty or at least anxious. This scene is repeated in its entirety.
Peter returns later that day. Gustav didn’t return to boarding school. He made his way to the cabin. He was found outside by a hunter. He may have been there some time, having frozen in the snow.
In their bedroom, Anne begins a conversation, but Peter silences her, putting a hand over her mouth. In the film’s final scene, shown from behind, Peter leads the twins down a path to what we assume is Gustav’s funeral service. Anne follows several paces behind.
El-Toukhy’s film portrays a complex woman who attempts to do the right thing but does not recognise or accept her errors of judgment. It is progressive. Films about women rarely explore shades of grey. Anne believes that if Gustav simply kept their relationship a secret, then they could function as a normal family. However, she has no regards for Gustav’s feelings. Rather she believes that sex is something that men do not combine with emotional attachment. Sex is not love. We see her find the tape that Gustav made of their conversation, the proof of her infidelity. It is implied she destroys it. Interestingly (and perhaps this is a plot flaw), Gustav fails to mention this to his father. As for Gustav, as much as he is odious and chooses to harm others as a means of expressing his anger at coming from a broken home, he is still a work-in-progress, capable of tenderness and able to function in society.
The point of the film is that Anne’s conception of victimhood is blinkered by gender. In a courtroom scene, we see her cross-examining a boy, who ‘accidentally struck’ someone as a door was opened – the boy was locked in. Anne doesn’t continue questioning him, to ask what he means by ‘accidentally struck’. To her, the action speaks for itself.
Queen of Hearts is a high-stakes movie. If Anne confessed her transgression, she would lose both her family and her career – she has a fear that ‘everything will disappear’. It is implied in the final image that she has lost the former. Anne may be suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, which makes her oblivious to boundaries. This may also account for the absence of friends. However, Dyrholm plays her as principled and someone you might want to know, not wallowing in anger and resentment. The film is also a tragedy. In both Queen of Hearts and A Fish Swimming Upside Down, it is a young man who pays the price for the woman’s transgression. In two European meditations on the Oedipus complex by female directors, Oedipus dies rather than kill his father. Sophocles and Freud got it wrong.
Reviewed on Saturday 2 January 2021, streamed on Mubi